From the moment our babies are born, they’re discovering the world through their senses, whether it’s by gazing at brightly coloured mobiles, grabbing onto our pinkies or putting their own little fingers and toes in their mouths. Learning through the five senses remains beneficial even in the preschool and elementary school years—and for grown-ups, it’s a soothing and fun way to bond with kids.
“Sensory play is the foundation for all higher-level learning,” says Stephanie Swinburne, an occupational therapist and owner of Kiddo Active Therapy in Montreal. “Every time you engage the sensory system, you’re creating neural connections, which is good for complex development.”
Swinburne compares sensory motor development to the structure of a house: The foundation is sensory and reflex integration, with the first floor being basic motor skills and the second floor being the more complex motor skills, such as visual-motor integration and hand-eye coordination. The roof is cognitive skills, social skills, executive functioning and emotional regulation. “In order to have a solid roof, you need to have the rest of the house be well-built,” she says. “And if the foundation has cracks, your house could be a little bit crooked.”
Here are seven crafts you can do with young children that will help them fine-tune their sensory and motor skills, while fostering their creativity and emotional well-being.
Mix 1 cup brown sugar with 1 cup corn flour and 5 tbsp vegetable oil. What you get is a cool, soft sand that can be shaped, pressed into moulds, squeezed, squished and played with. Trucks can roll through it and leave tire tracks, or you can construct buildings and create a small town. From young kids to grown-ups, everyone will find playing with moon sand relaxing. When you’re not using it, store your moon sand in an airtight container.
Get your kid to try contour drawing or even painting while blindfolded. (You may want to do this outside!) Not being able to see will force them to zero in on their other senses. “They rely on their tactile senses but also their sensory-somatic nervous system [touch], which tells them what their hands are doing,” Swinburne explains.
Threading crafts encourage quiet play, improve concentration, and hone fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Smaller kids or those with motor skill challenges can string large pieces of pasta (like penne) or cut-up toilet paper rolls onto pipe cleaners. Older and more dexterous children can thread beads onto shoelaces to make jewellery or decorative key chains. Other suggestions: Use a thin branch and leaves to make a natural garland or thread pieces of straws on yarn to make a snake. Or, for the most nimble-fingered: How about a good old-fashioned daisy chain? You can also punch holes around the perimeter of a paper plate and have your child create shapes by guiding yarn in and out of the holes.
To develop the sense of touch, have your kid pick a theme and build a soup around it! They can fill a bucket or bowl with ingredients for their soup, which could be leaves, petals and twigs from the backyard for a nature soup; dried beans, rice and spices for a kitchen soup; or perhaps shells, toy fish and sponges for an ocean-inspired soup. Then, let your child start “cooking” by adding and mixing ingredients in a big pot with their fingers, and give them a jug of coloured water to mix into the blend of interesting textures. Not only will finding the supplies for the soup be challenging for kids as they hunt around and explore, but mixing everything together and “serving” it to guests will inspire their imaginative play.
Integrate aromatics into your crafts to sharpen your child’s sense of smell. Try making a simple playdough (mix 1 cup rice flour with ¼ cup salt and then stir in ½ cup coloured water), and add some extracts from the baking aisle that will appeal to your child, such as vanilla, almond or peppermint. Have your kid see if they can identify the smell and ask which candies or dessert they’re reminded of.
Every child has that one bin full of miscellaneous odds and ends, and these can be perfect for a painting project. Whether it’s cars and trucks, plastic animals or old figurines, anything can be put in paint and used to create a work of art! Just be sure to pick objects that can get a little paint on them. For tactile fun, roll vehicles through the paint and across a canvas to create cool tracks, dip dinosaur or animal feet in the paint and use them to make footprints, or even use that old doll’s hair as a paintbrush. Watch your child’s imagination run wild as they find new ways to use their toys in their paint creations, while producing a visual masterpiece.
The tub is a great place to experiment with sensory activities—there’s lots of space and it doesn’t matter how messy things get. Make some bath paint out of no-tears shampoo or body wash, a bit of cornstarch, water and food colouring. Let your kids use brushes or their hands to paint and watch as they turn your tub into their own little art gallery. (Just be sure to put plastic over any tiled areas with light-coloured grout to prevent it from getting stained in the process.)